Barack Obama's Second Inaugural Address has been widely praised as a recovery of his adherence to an empathetic and visionary understanding of presidential leadership in the United States. Surely, it is far more encouraging from a progressive perspective than either what might have been issued from the lips of Mitt Romney on the Capitol Steps had he won the election last November or the kind of wimpy call for a renewal of bipartisanship that set the tone of Obama's first inaugural four years ago, a message with leaden weight that had no resonance in Washington, especially among Republicans.
This speech was also far more forthcoming on some crucial issues than what we had come to expect from Obama's first four years in office. And the stylish language and stirring delivery broke enough new ground to strengthen Obama's claim to be in the front rank of recent American presidents, provided his words are translated into concrete actions.
The rhetorical elegance of the presentation has made it unavoidable that some headline grabbers would reach for the stars and compare Obama's address with that of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865, long regarded as the greatest inaugural address ever. It added to the excitement of the occasion that this public celebration of Obama's notable reelection coincided with the national holiday set aside to recognise the great achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. The stage was set for greatness, and for many Americans Obama rose to the occasion on this special day with grace and inspirational eloquence.
Elevating a struggle
For one thing the address brought the defence of equality of gays for the first time into the very forefront of the struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination in America. By linking gay rights with those of women and African Americans there was an unmistakable assertion that not only was this a show of support, but it raised the status of the gay rights movement into the company of the most significant and symbolic struggles for justice the country has ever experienced. The coded communication to adherents of each of these struggles was joined in the following sentence that would not be understood by the vast majority of Americans: "… that all of us are created equal is the star that guided us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall."
Of course for a wordsmith such as Obama, the alliteration of these names must have been appealing, but so was their meaning: Seneca Falls as the site of the first convention in 1848 that called for full equality for women, Selma where in 1965 police violently beat peaceful civil rights demonstrators, and Stonewall, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York where a police raid gave birth to a riotous response that sparked a movement.
This show of commitment on Obama's part was powerfully reinforced by the inclusion in the inaugural programme of Richard Blanco, an openly gay Latino poet, who read his moving poem, One Today, on self and America, Whitmanesque in its autobiographical embrace of the totality of country.
Would it have been too much for Obama to have added Wounded Knee to his enumeration of epic struggles against the most monumental forms of inequality that have afflicted indigenous peoples of this land since the first European settlers arrived? Or to have mentioned, at least in passing, the Occupy Movement with its reminder that America is supposed to belong to the 99 percent? I suppose this is too much to expect, but should we as citizens be satisfied with less than too much, and go away happy with what was given rather than what should have been given?
Welcome talking points
Beyond these affirmations, and coming as something of a surprise, was Obama's recognition that climate change was real and menacing, and that its challenge cannot be evaded without grave harm, especially to future generations.
In his words, we acknowledge our obligations "are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity". "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said. Obama obliquely confronted the climate sceptics by acknowledging, with apparent irony, that "[s]ome may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and more powerful storms".
There are some obscurities present despite this welcome signal of a renewed emphasis on climate change. Obama's words can be heard as misleadingly situating climate change in the future, yet he was also alluding to the rising frequency and severity of extreme weather events, perhaps with the 2012 super-storm Sandy that devastated the Jersey shore and parts of New York City uppermost in his mind. There was no clear expression of an urgent need to work toward a global agreement on binding restrictions on carbon emissions or any recognition of the importance of civil society actors in mobilising awareness and pushing governments to act responsibly in the face of global warming, with rising temperatures already crossing thresholds of present dangers, with anticipations of further warming in the years ahead.
There were other welcome notes struck in this carefully constructed presentation of what the President wanted to do so as to make his second term establish his place in history, as well as do good for the people and country. There was a definite indication that the post-9/11 engagement in wars around the globe was coming to an end, although not the commitment to intervene without intervening (that is, "leading from behind", as in Mali; the Libya post-Iraq image of intervention; the targeted drone assassinations), and no sign that the military option with respect to Iran has taken off the table.
Additionally, the pledge to work toward improved treatment of immigrants was a welcome positive sign, as was the repetition of the commitment to make the schools and streets safe for the children of the country, mentioning Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of the latest incident of gun violence, the name associated with the latest effort by Congress and the President to impose some minimal limits on access to automatic weaponry.
Obama also usefully, with nuanced language, reaffirmed an active role for government in offering protection to those among us who are poor, sick, vulnerable, and marginal. Obama praised the virtues of the private sector, while taking note of the fact that markets produce distortions in wealth, income, and our collective wellbeing unless vigorously regulated from the perspective of the common good.
Words he never said
Along with the uplifting language and appeals to "our better angels" there were some disappointments in the speech, including surprising, even startling omissions and silences.
Always with visionary expectations there are those who question whether the talk will be followed by the walk, whether promise and pledge will be rendered operative by performance. More specifically, it was disturbing that nuclear weapons were not even mentioned, failing to reference Obama's historic pledge in his 2009 Prague speech to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, an early expression of his pragmatic idealism that undoubtedly influenced the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo to give him prematurely their coveted award in 2009.
There was no attempt to pursue more modest goals such as de-alerting American and Russian nuclear missiles so as to create greater assurance that a nuclear war will not begin by accident or miscalculation or pledging never to use nuclear weapons first in a future situation of conflict. Of course, the most constructive sign of a president convincingly dedicated to peace would have been to offer the world American backing for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone that would simultaneously get rid of Israel's covertly acquired arsenal of nuclear weapons and overcome concerns about Iran's nuclear programme.
There was also no mention whatsoever of working toward a solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and certainly no expression of disapproval of Israel's accelerated expansion of settlements, its official publication in Hebrew (but not in Arabic) of maps showing the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of Israel, and its failures to lift the blockade on the entrapped people in Gaza.
Perhaps, silence by Obama was preferable to issuing a misleading call to the parties to resume direct negotiations so as to resolve the conflict by agreeing on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in those parts of Palestine beyond the 1967 borders of Israel. At least, we should be thankful that Obama did not spread false hopes on behalf of the long superseded "two-state consensus". Or is this again an instance where the United States will give up the baton of leadership, and entrust the diplomacy of the conflict from now on to Europe with its supposedly more balanced approach?
We need to precede any credible diplomatic process by asking how to conceive of a sustainable and just peace given the collapse of the unanimously endorsed ideas rooted in Security Council Resolution 242 of an Israeli withdrawal and a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. If 242 is dead, what next? This explosive question can no longer be kept in the closet!
I found disappointing the priority accorded to education as an imperative in a capitalist mode in a globalising era: for Obama education seemed to mean little more than training in the skills needed to compete effectively in the world economy. There was no indication that in addition to families and community relations, schools and colleges are indispensable learning sites for what it should mean to be citizens of a democratic society in the 21st century.
The great pastor, Reverend William Sloan Coffin, used to draw attention to the distinction to a between being a "subject" (habitually obedient) and a "citizen" (whose conscience puts a brake on obedience), suggesting without engaged citizenship democracy would not protect liberties of society.
Especially here in the United States, which for better and mostly worse, is a global state (that is, with its military operations and capabilities spread to the ends of the earth), citizenship in this country necessarily implies a kind of "world citizenship" that either acquiesces in current patterns of violent geopolitics, epitomised by attack drones that are deployed on a global battlefield, or the search for non-violent alternatives that reinterpret the nature of security.
Obama conveyed no responsiveness to global horizons of engagement and responsibility, seemingly affirming a kind of geopolitics-as-usual (that is, global leadership in the more moderate form that preceded the disastrous presidency of George W Bush, but no acknowledgement that a state-centric world order was increasingly disabled from meeting the problems of an endangered planet because of its inability to supplant the national interest by serving the global interest). In these regards, it was notable that Obama never once referred to the United Nations, how it might be strengthened to diminish the governmentality deficit that allows world order to be mainly a function of the work of armies and markets, neither of which are at all compatible with Obama's central inaugural theme of equality and human dignity.
This Second Inaugural address of Barack Obama will be long remembered if he goes on to a presidency that delivers as much as it promises, but even if it does, I find myself seeking more, and feeling that the country and world needs more. I think our expectations have fallen below the thresholds of response that are required to meet the challenges of the day, including climate change and equality.
Can we really hope for enough action along these lines without a brave show of willingness to pin much of the blame on the excesses of neo-liberal capitalism as it operates nationally and globally? Are we to have any confidence in achieving sustainable development here and elsewhere without questioning the excesses of consumerism and individualism?
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.